By JOHN BURNETT
Tribune-Herald staff writer
In 1895, two years after the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy, Queen Lili‘uokalani was arrested after a failed insurrection by her loyalists and accused of knowing her people were going to rise up and failing to stop them.
Hilo Community Players’ “The Trial of Lili‘uokalani” by Maurice Zimring opened Friday and runs through Sept. 22 at East Hawaii Cultural Center. Zimring, a successful Hollywood dramatist who retired to Hilo, wrote the play in 1973, and was on hand in 1993 when Jackie Pualani Johnson portrayed Lili‘uokalani at the University of Hawaii at Hilo.
Johnson, a celebrated local actress, director and UH-Hilo drama professor, reprises her role as Hawaii’s last reigning monarch.
“It takes a special kind of person for this role and Jackie is that kind of person,” said producer Hal Glatzer. “She understands the history of Hawaii and of the queen … and holds the position that the queen was wrongfully overthrown.”
As Johnson put it: “The truth is sometimes hard to deal with.”
“What we’ve done in Hawaii is we’ve accepted where we are,” she said. “We don’t really want to go back to the reality of the injustices that are just startling. And she was a very grounded Christian woman, so she made a decision based on not wanting bloodshed and those kinds of things, but a part of you can’t help but say, ‘No, this shouldn’t have happened.’”
Zimring, who died in 2005 at age 96, wrote the story for the Barbara Stanwyck film “Jeopardy,” and numerous episodes of the popular TV courtroom drama “Perry Mason” — but is best remembered for a story that became the 1954 Hollywood cult classic “Creature from the Black Lagoon.”
“My fond memory is that he turned practically scarlet when people mentioned ‘Creature from the Black Lagoon,’” Johnson said. “Because he felt like that, of all things, got the notoriety when all his serious work didn’t get as much exposure.”
Glatzer, who also knew Zimring, said there’s a commonality in Zimring’s best-known work and his history-based stage play.
“What’s interesting about ‘Creature from the Black Lagoon’ is that the people realize that it’s they who have invaded the creature’s domain,” he said. “And although they wound it, they leave without killing it. And if you want to see a parallel of what the United States has done vis-a-vis Hawaii, in my opinion, you are welcome to make that analogy, although he wrote ‘Creature from the Black Lagoon’ 20 years before he wrote ‘The Trial of Lili‘uokalani.’ But I still think he had that kind of sympathy for the underdog.’”
That refrain was echoed by Johnson, who referred to Zimring as “a champion of the underdog.”
“There’s no way you could walk away from this story and not think that,” she said.
The cast also includes: Wolf Daniel Braun as John Owen Dominis, the queen’s husband; Peter Veseskis as Col. William Whiting, the presiding judge; Rob Hunt as Judge Advocate Capt. Elwood Hardy, the prosecutor (based on William Ansel Kinney); Randall McEndree as defense counsel Paul Neumann; Saul Rollason as Republic of Hawaii Attorney General Josiah Thornton (based on Lorrin A. Thurston); Ray Campainha as Paki Kealoha, the queen’s minister of foreign affairs (based on Robert Wilcox); Nicole Cowan as Jenny Thornton, Josiah Thornton’s daughter and Paki Kealoha’s love interest; Ron Serrao as William Ka‘ae, the queen’s private secretary; Desmon Haumea as Sgt. ‘Apapane, a sentry loyal to the queen; Scott Kester in dual role of Albert S. Willis, U.S. presidential envoy, and a military commissioner; Ed Smay as the court reporter; Brennan Veith Low as the bailiff; Denyse Woo as Kanani, a lady-in-waiting; Dickie Motherwell as Evelyn Wilson, a lady-in-waiting; and John Kooistra as a military commissioner.
Director Justina Mattos described the cast as “fabulous.”
“I think the cast would say I cracked the whip as far as keeping the pacing up …,” she said. “I really worked hard and so did the cast.”
She then issued an unusual disclaimer for potential theatergoers.
“There are some characters that the audience is going to hate and it’s because the actors are so good,” Mattos said.
Mattos is a protégée of Johnson, who said that when Mattos directs “there’s a sense that there’s no need to worry.”
“She sees detail. She communicates beautifully. She’s even-tempered. As a human being, she’s caring and she knows Hawaii’s history. She’s marvelous to work with and I just adore her,” Johnson said.
The show runs Fridays and Saturdays at 7 p.m. with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Individual tickets are $10 advance, $15 door, $5 for keiki 12 and under, with student and group discounts. Advance tickets are available at the EHCC box office. Call 961-5711 for tickets or more information.
Email John Burnett at email@example.com.